Libbie Hawker's saga of Amarna-era Egypt,The Book of Coming Forth by Day, continues in Part 2:Storm in the Sky.
By sheer force of the Pharaoh's will, the City of the Sun rises from hot, barren sands. But as this monument to his strength flourishes, the king's ties to sanity begin to fray. His religious zeal and unchecked power lead him to commit one atrocity after another, and soon those who dwell in the throne's shadows must enter into a fatal conspiracy to prevent Egypt from crumbling altogether.
Nefertiti believes she has found a way to repay her father for his many wrongdoings. But her vengeance will cost what she holds most dear. Tiy, cast off from the court but still grappling for power, re-emerges to face the Pharaoh with a weapon unlike any he has encountered before. The burden of the throne's security falls on young Baketaten—but she is not as fragile as she seems, and she will play a deadly game of deception to obtain what Egypt needs most: an heir to the throne. And Horemheb, tormented by love for a woman he can never have, will risk his own damnation when he swears to avenge an unimaginable loss.
The corrupted court of Akhenaten's Egypt comes to life in this epic novel of secrets and intrigue.
Libbie Hawker tackles a period both popular and curiously neglected in historical fiction. The mystique, atmosphere and exoticism of ancient Egypt has fascinated many generations of scholars and dreamers alike. Libbie's books offer an enthralling tale of royalty, religion and female power, and they feature the ever-fascinating Nefertiti to boot. – Charlotte E. English
[Hawker's] characters feelreal, caught up in complex situations and intricate relationships. There's no simple dichotomy of good/bad, only the sense of real people who are trapped in difficult circumstances.– Goodreads Review
Writing that hits the mark… a well-woven tale.– Amazon Review
Nefertiti's breath caught, and she drew herself up when she recognized the man's firm, direct stride and the swing of his tense, wiry arms. She had seen her father, Ay, but little over the past two years. Any such blessing from the gods was rare in this time and in this place, but if they'd wished to be truly merciful, they would have left Ay on the West Bank, or dropped him from the side of a boat into a crocodile pool. Even if she had managed to mostly avoid him while Akhet-Aten grew up in its improbable glory, Nefertiti still felt his influence in the City of the Sun, an ever-present irritation like the burning itch of a fly's sharp bite. She stood regally still amid the papyrus and waited for him to approach, ignoring the tingle of danger at her back where the current whispered within its veils of green and gray.
Ay trudged across the final white line of the unbuilt estate's boundary. The prints of his sandals tracked pale against the red sand. His eyes flicked over her face and shoulders—all of her that could be seen above the papyrus—with their usual air of displeased assessment. Nefertiti frowned at him in silence as he sketched a shallow bow.
"Is there something I can help you with?" she asked impatiently when he straightened.
Ay raised one black-painted brow, taking in the strip of green bank with frank amusement. "Am I interrupting some important business, King's Wife?"
Nefertiti resolved not to dignify his impertinence with a reply. She waited, arms crossed. The papyrus tassels stirred and murmured against her skin.
Ay gave the softest, briefest of sighs. "Let us not dance about the issue. The time has come for us both to be forthright, Nefertiti."
"When have I ever been evasive with you, Father?"
Ay's thin mouth tightened in a half-smile, but he did not rise to her bait. His thin shoulders gave a little twitch, almost a shrug, as if he felt the weight of Akhet-Aten bearing down upon his back, as if he wished to rid himself of the city's stark reality, but could not. "You know this has gone too far," he said.
Nefertiti tilted her head, half an unspoken question, half a warning to the old man to proceed with caution.
"The city," Ay clarified. "Our isolation. This move away from the West Bank, and Waset, and the god Amun himself."
Resolute, Nefertiti kept her silence. The papyrus fronds brushed her bare arms.
"Your husband," Ay went on, lifting his voice with determined force, "is clearly insane."
"Then why did you follow him here, to Akhet-Aten? A man as great as you, Overseer of All the King's Horses, could have re-established himself in Waset if he so chose."
"Madness is weakness," Ay said. "And where there is weakness in a man, there is opportunity for another—for any man who is clever enough to seize that opportunity and make it his own."
Nefertiti watched his face as he spoke, calmly assessing the stillness of his features, the thin skin stretched over the shallow angles of his skull, the observant, coolly confident eyes. Where is your weakness, Father? she wondered. Where is my opportunity? For he must have a weakness. All men did.
All women, too. Nefertiti knew her own faults, those places where her heart was weak and friable, where the boundaries of her strength could be tracked away like lime dust through the sand. Gods help her, she had come face to face with her own monstrous frailties more than once. She remembered the sound of Mutbenret sobbing, pleading to be spared—remembered the sight of her sister trudging numbly off toward the Pharaoh's bedchamber—and Nefertiti suppressed a shudder.
Surely there was a way to crack Ay's hard, glassy shell and move the stunted ka that dwelt within him. Surely there was some path into his heart—some hold Nefertiti might place upon him, some strength she might exert over him. Her own influence at court was greater than his. It must be. She could not bear for him to be stronger, better—not after all she had sacrificed, and all she had done to others in pursuit of her own might.
"Opportunity," she mused aloud. "And what opportunity do you see here, Father? What fresh glory is Ay planning for himself, I wonder?"
Ay's dark gaze slipped to one side, as if he suspected listeners among the papyrus, as if the weight of Akhet-Aten pressed more insistently upon him. It was a rare display of hesitancy—uncertainty—and Nefertiti savored it like a fine, sweet wine.
"I have been searching," Ay admitted slowly, "for a … suitable replacement."
"For the king."
Nefertiti's brows leaped in unfeigned surprise. She stared at her father in frank disbelief.
"If only I can find the right man," Ay went on, "one whom the nobles and priests alike seem disposed to support. Then I'll back that man strongly, and do all I can to see him to the throne."
Nefertiti pursed her lips, considering Ay in silence. Her lack of a response seemed to unsettle him—as much as Ay was ever unsettled. He twitched his bony shoulders again and said, rather defensively, "You know I can muster support for a new king. I have that sort of influence among the court, and my ties to the temples are still strong enough, I believe—"
Nefertiti cut him off with a curt wave of one hand. "You are speaking of dethroning a Pharaoh."
Ay tipped his chin in smug acquiescence.
"Such an audacity has never been attempted before. Whatever will the gods think?"
"What does it matter? The priests will be most enthusiastic about a coup, and it is they who hold the power."
"It is the priests who hold the wealth," Nefertiti corrected. "What little wealth they still have left—what Mahu and his dogs haven't claimed for the Aten. It is the gods who hold the power—over the river, the land, our very lives. And it is the gods who put my husband on the throne."
Ay huffed a single, dry laugh through his nostrils. "Have you grown pious, Nefertiti?"
"I have always been pious, Father. It is you who have always disregarded the will of the gods. You may have sired me, but do not assume I am as reckless as you when it comes to matters of divinity."
"Ah, yes," Ay said, "how could I have forgotten? I am speaking to the devout and righteous High Priestess of the Sun, Nefer-Neferu-Aten herself."
Nefertiti's face heated at the sound of the name—her other name, the one used only in the temples, where she donned the robes of a priestess and carried out the daily pageant of Aten-worship, welcoming the sun and appeasing the demands of the Pharaoh. Nefer-Neferu-Aten, indeed. High Priestess of the Sun, Mistress of the Ben-ben Stone—empty titles—attachments to a distant and unfeeling god. The titles were meaningless to all who heard them, save for Akhenaten. To the Pharaoh of Egypt, Nefertiti's identity as Nefer-Neferu-Aten was a potent magic, a conferment of real and dazzling power. And because the titles were real to the king, it did not matter who else honored or accepted them. Nefertiti drew herself up to her full height and felt the heat flee from her cheeks. Here was her might, her strength over Ay. She may be a true High Priestess to no one but the king, but who in all of Egypt had greater power than he?
"You would risk the blasphemy of dethroning a king?" she asked coolly. "You would so blithely court the gods' displeasure? Why not simply kill Akhenaten, then? You will damn your soul either way."
Ay drew back—a subtle movement, the faintest shrinking away, so slight that only Nefertiti, whom Ay himself had trained in observation, could have noted it. But she did note it, and it strengthened her spine.
The old man did not answer her challenge. He only slid his eyes away from her own, and contemplated the fast-moving Iteru with one hand on his chin, his lips pressed pale and tight. Even he is afraid of reaching that far, Nefertiti realized. There is still some humility left in him—or some fear—small though it may be.
"Have some sense," Ay said gruffly. "Cooperate with me, Nefertiti. For your own good—your own freedom—as well as the good of the land."
He is asking for my blessing, she realized with a rising sense of triumph. He is loath to move against my pleasure. That was maat, if ever Nefertiti had seen it. She was a figure of real power now, a force in the City of the Sun nearly as potent at Akhenaten himself. And anyone who wished to change Egypt—to remake the world—must contend with Nefertiti's will, if not Akhenaten's.
Nefertiti drew a deep breath. The fresh, green scent of the papyrus plants filled her head. It was a rich and soothing scent, as comforting as the perfumes of the West Bank gardens that colored the memories of her childhood. The strip of green that fringed Akhet-Aten was narrow now, and struggled to grow. But with time, it would flourish. Given enough time, the whole bowl of this dry, red valley would sprout with green, and blossom beneath the sun.
"Are you seeking my help in your schemes, Father?" Nefertiti said lightly.
Ay's lips thinned still more. He narrowed his eyes, glaring at her from beneath the fringe of his wig, and said nothing.
Nefertiti snapped one of the papyrus fronds and brushed its soft tassel against her lips, watching Ay as he maintained his stoic silence. Finally she turned and cast the stem into the Iteru. The current caught it at once and swept it from the bank, carrying it away to disappear amid the wink and glitter of sunlight on water.
"You will do well to remember this," she told Ay at last. "Akhet-Aten is as much my city as it is the king's. I rule here, as surely as he does."
"You have no great affection for your husband. I'm not fool enough to believe you've fallen in love with him. Why do you seek to defend him now?"
Fallen in love with him? Nefertiti thought drily. Quite the opposite. But what did it matter, after all? She could rule beside Akhenaten without loving him. She could take the power her titles gave her—the power she derived from Akhenaten's regard for her—and do with that strength whatever she willed.
She brushed past Ay, lifting the hem of her gown as she made her way from the strip of greenery, up toward the wide, new lanes of Akhet-Aten—her city. Imperfect and strange as it was, the city was her own. And here, unlike on the West Bank or in the House of Rejoicing, Nefertiti was stronger than Ay.
For as long as Akhenaten still reigned, at least.